With an Introduction and Notes by Roger Clark, University of Kent at Canterbury. Translation by Charles E. Wilbour (1862). One of the great classics of western literature, 'Les Miserables' is a magisterial work which is rich in both character portrayal and meticulous historical description. Characters such as the absurdly criminalised Valjean, the street urchin Gavroche, the rascal Thenardier, the implacable detective Javert, and the pitiful figure of the prostitute Fantine and her daughter Cosette, have entered the pantheon of literary dramatis personae. The reader is also treated to the unforgettable descriptions of the Battle of Waterloo and Valjean's flight through the Paris sewers. Volume 1 of 2 AUTHOR: Victor Hugo's life (1802-1885) spanned most of the nineteenth century, and no other author portrays that turbulent period of French history than Hugo; on his death, he was accorded a state funeral. He achieved excellence throughout his huge body of work, but his two lasting achievements are 'Les Miserables' (1862) and 'Notre Dame de Paris', now more commonly known as 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame'.
The only positive I felt as I closed the book a couple weeks ago was that I had managed to finish it. But, really I did gain positive things. I love the musical, which I saw in my early teens and fondly recall my older sister explaining the story to me ahead of time so I wouldn’t get lost, and telling me that it’s not about the French revolution, but some other later obscure uprising. I had the sound track in college and can pretty much sing along with it. So, this book was necessary, it filled the background, undermined the musical’s integrity, and just put more of the picture together. So, I needed this book.
What did I take from it? A Parisian view of France in the mid 19th-century. This was written in 1862, after the last the Parisian and French attempted revolutions (1848, ircc). For over 50 years, from Bastille Day in 1789 to the founding of Napoleon Bonaparte III, France was a turmoil of attempted revolutions, with the search for something like liberty and self-determination constantly undermined by Kings and emperors. And Hugo takes us to the heart of it, to an obscure pointless bloody rebellion in Paris in 1832. He takes us to the barricades, and highlights the purity of the young healthy revolutionaries on the brink of a noble but utterly pointless death. And, it’s the barricades that are the heart of the book, IMO. They are a painful but intense experience that gives the books its figurative heft.
Which makes me realize that this is a war book. And, I should have realized this from the section on the Battle of Waterloo, a riveting and brilliant section that brings the battle to life, and is even somewhat accurate. It just makes sense. Hugo was the son of one of Napoleon’s generals, it’s in his blood. And the barricades were about fighting.
What I didn’t like was Hugo’s ego. He’s knows he’s right even if he doesn’t have the evidence to back it up. This confidence in his assertions was just – it was like listening to a religious fanatic. The certainty that you can’t argue against but just know that the certainty itself is wrong.
And it’s this ego that leads Hugo into the constant diversions. The 1st 100 pages develop a character and then drop him. Then there’s Waterloo, a strange convent, his theory on King Louis Philippe, on the uprisings, Argot, the Paris sewer system and on and on. The convent is the dullest part of the book, but it was actually quite humbly written and memorable afterwards. But the parts on Louis Philippe and the the French uprisings – pure nonsense. It’s just Fox News . And the part on the sewers, useless. If Jean Valjean doesn’t know where he’s going, why do we need to know?
What I missed - the emotion. Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cosette all left me flat. Javert and Marius were fantastic. Gillenormand was brilliant too. But, this is Valjean’s book, and he’s a dolt. A immensely strong dolt, but if it doesn’t have to do with a little gimmick that led to his fortune, or towards something preserving his freedom so he can overprotect Cosette, Valjean’s brain simply stops working. There’s nothing there. A big tough dolt. He gave me nothing, or at least I didn’t feel it. Ditto Fantine and Cosette, both dolts. Somewhere on LT it was mentioned that Hugo was something of a womanizer. This doesn’t surprise me. I can’t imagine he thought much of women, while at the same time I’m pretty sure he felt he thought quite highly of them.
Considering how much the Valjean and Fantine of the musical meant to me – it was disappointing to not like them in the book.
I should mention Eponine was one of my favorite characters in the book, despite how she turned out. I love her in the musical too, but that’s a very different Eponine. Gavrouche is brilliant. The bishop was interesting. Thenardier – cliché. The Friends of the ABC – brilliant all of them. I still feel hollow from the scene where most of them suddenly disappear from the living – which Hugo mentions so simply, almost as an aside.
And, I should also mention Hugo was something of wordsmith and he is very quotable. And his 1463 pages can be read somewhat quickly, but also won’t disappoint on close reading.
And, I should conclude something. But, I don’t know what to conclude, so I’ll leave it here. Apologies for the long wondering review – although I have to mention, it does seem kind of appropriate.
After reading Les Mis, I am convinced that it is indeed one of the most deservedly influential works in Western Literature. Hugo’s deep thoughts on the French revolution and its children have long challenged the imagination of middle school Parisians and untutored heartlanders struggling to follow a broadway score. His influence continues to be felt through stories that interweave historical fact and individual psychological turmoil, including such epic sagas as the Thorn Birds and the Forsyte Saga. Hugo simultaneously gives us insight into the society and culture, much as a good article in Newsweek might, and the kind of deep understanding of individual pathos I remember having upon first reading Freud when I was 15. It is a powerful combination.
While other great works, works like Moby Dick or Paradise Lost, challenge the reader, assume some reasonable level of knowledge and intelligence, and urge the reader to stretch their world view, Hugo has the wisdom to write for the less literary, indeed, we might even say, less literate, and meticulously clarifies everything that has already been made clear, and then repeats it again, helping us to understand even the most trivial points in great detail. Indeed, one of the beauties of this book is that if you miss something the first time, you will likely be able to catch it the fourth time, and thus need not read too closely. It is as if Hugo has anticipated the entire genre of the modern daytime serial drama.
In sum, Les Mis was everything I thought it would be, and deserves to be recognized as the groundbreaking, influential work it is, a work fully worthy of television serialization. Indeed, after completing it, I thought, "Wow! Now that's almost as good as the Epic of the Wheat!" High praise, indeed.
---Spoiler alert, although I don't really think the enjoyment of the book is based on not knowing the plot ---
But, I find that I have to begin near the end, because I ended up feelings the books strongest effects there when Jean Valjean reveals to Marius, now Cosette's husband, that he had been in the galley. It was apparent earlier on that Valjean saw Cosette's love for someone else as the end of his relationship with him, and I was puzzled by this, and I didn't see why he needed to tell Marius. Jean Valjean's reasoning was that he didn't want someone unwillingly to be associated with someone like him if they didn't want to, and he didn't want to live a lie. But, at the same time I was emotionally struck by his sense of shame about what seemed so trivial, having stolen a loaf of bread, and doing it to feed his sister's children. For this he felt so low as to be below the lowest in society. It didn't seem to matter that he had also created a business that benefited a town, saved several lives, given to the poor, still he needed to shrink and hide. Perhaps I felt this more strongly because I currently have a friend in jail on a serious charge. Maybe it is just knowing all the ways throughout history in which people have been made to feel unworthy, untouchable for things which now make no sense to us, and, at the same time it continues for reasons that are similarly senseless.
The other parts of the book that seem amazing to me are psychic struggles that occur within Jean Valjean - first when he has stolen the Bishops silver plates, and, on being brought back by the police, the bishop has said that he gave them to Valjean, and then brings out his candlesticks as well, telling Jean Valjean that he had forgotten them. Valjean has been hardened by his experience of 19 years in the galleys for stealing bread and then trying to escape, and the battle is whether to hold on to his bitterness or to allow himself to feel goodness.
The next struggle is after he has established himself in a town, creating an enterprise which has enriched him as well as the town. But another man has been falsely identified as him and is about to be sent to the galleys for life for stealing apples, and another offense which Valjean had committed shortly after his release. So he struggles over whether he needs to turn himself in. In all these times his struggles were wrenching to me. These are common struggles - the process of change from a habitual way of feeling to one that allows more of life inside; the desire to shrink into the shadows.
While some of his characters may be exagerated, perhaps Javert is in his dogged, unquestioning respect for authority, law and the upper class, the depiction of what Valjean struggles with in his own mind seems extremely realistic to me.
in the Le Salon Litteraire du Peuple pour le Peuple which is currently discussing the book, there are some comments about the depiction of women in a stereotyped way, even though most of this is done in what seem to be favorable statements about women, such as "One of the generosities of women is to yield." To me it makes no difference or little difference whether the stereotyped statements are positive or negative - it is always negative to impose a view that denies a person their full humanity and Hugo, to my eye, is definitely guilty of that. Toward the end I was beginning to feel that it was turning into a happily ever after story, with Cosette, who'd been an interesting enough kids, turning into this woman ready to submerge herself in her husband, and leave the room when he and her father had important things to discuss. Sure that was the view of the time, but then we appreciate Hugo for the ways in which he was able to see beyond his time, not for the ways he was limited by it.
There was a lot too that was good about the depiction of the relationship between Marius and his grandfather, and his grandfather's treatment of Marius's father, though that got glossed over in the end.
As I read the book I was amazed at times by just how much Hugo seemed to know about conditions and events around the world. I don't know exactly when Marx's ideas became popular, but, Hugo discussed economic ideas that were similar and the problems of creating and distributing wealth. He seemed very familiar with political events in the United States, and elsewhere. I don't know about other writers who wrote about the difficulties of poverty at that time. Dickens was about that time. E.Nesbitt and Frances Burnett were writers of children's books who wrote about poverty in England perhaps 50 years later. If I compare him to Dickens he seems to me both more realistic and not so confused about class. Thinking of Oliver Twist one difference is that Oliver who had the audacity to ask for more never does actually steal - and he turns out to be of gentile birth. While bringing attention to the misery of the poor he's depicted as being able to rise above it, seemingly as a characteristic of his class. Hugo's depiction of poverty is a bit less of a fairy tale. Fantine does sleep with someone without marrying, so she has some responsibility for her fate, unlike Oliver, but she is is not villified for that, or depicted as a person of bad character. Jean Valjean really did steal the bread, and having done that, and suffered out of proportion for it, acquires a character that includes some hardening against the world.
I don't really have a summary for this discussion, except all in all it seems like a big and compassionate work. I liked it when I first read it and I still do.
Here's the thing. The story itself could have probably been told in 300 pages or less. The other 1,162 pages were filled with the narrator's (Hugo's?) opinions about everything from the uselessness of convents, the history of riots in Paris, the greatness of the French people in general, the sanctity and purity of women and children, and even the worth of human excrement flowing through Paris's sewers. It seems as if Hugo decided that Les Miserables was his opportunity to discuss every fleeting idea or thought he'd ever had. In detail. With lots of name dropping. It drove this reader crazy.
And the story itself. I expected a little more in a "classic." I don't know about anyone else, but I found myself predicting the outcome of almost every scene. And it was so cloying, so maudlin - a paragon of 19th century melodrama at its worst.
So why am I giving Les Miserables 1.5 stars rather than one or even a half a star? 1. There were times when Hugo made me laugh. 2. Gavroche was a great character, finely drawn. 3. Because I read every one of its 1,463 pages.
My thoughts and comments:
I finished "Les Miserables" as part of the Le Salon group read yesterday morning and, (attempting to keep it spoiler free), yes, this is indeed a book that I loved and will read again over the years. Hugo has a way about writing that almost made me feel like he was attempting to lure my head from the story at times, but if so, he sadly failed. He tends to do what my mum calls "going off on a tangent". He gets caught up in a netherwind and is off and running with it for a while but then here he brings it back to the story line and yes, it usually had some little/big something to do with one or the other of the characters, including Paris.
By the way, this is the best book with Paris as the backdrop that I have ever read.
So I really liked it; I cared very much about most of the characters. I think that the only character I actually detested was Thenardier. I liked how Hugo built his characters so they were multifacted and layered and not just one dimensional. And he took the time to do it, which not all authors do; sometimes all parts of a character are described at once. But not here. Here, we actually got to see the growth (to the bad or the good) of the characters.
Thank you Le Salon, for organizing this read. For me, it was a reading experience of a lifetime for me. I highly recommend Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables".
The book ends well for some and not so well for others which is about all I’m going to say. I loved it and will probably end up re-reading a few times. However I’ve been reading in e-book format on my laptop, which is less than pleasant and I won’t be doing that again. This is definitely a book I want to own so I’ll be going out and buying a REAL copy (I really dislike the term ‘dead tree book’ it’s so negative). I also think I’ll go for the abridged version and do without Hugo’s rambling. I don’t need the history lesson on France every time I want to read it. I would suggest to anyone thinking about giving it a read to just go for it. The first few chapters seem a little slow but it’s totally worth it to stick it out. At least I thought so.
I did finally watch the movie last night after I finished and it was pretty good. They took liberties, changed things and left stuff out but I guess that’s to be expected. I hate when people say “I don’t need to read the book, I can just watch the movie”. Even the best movie adaptation is just a portion of the whole story. Sometimes it’s barely a glimpse of the goodness that lies within the book. I love movies as much as the next person but it’s good to go straight to the source. Movies are an enhancement, not a replacement for reading.
Though yes, the narrative is even more long-winded than you'd expect from 19th Century Western literature. Hugo's one of those authors who won't use one adjective when he can pile up a dozen in one sentence. When Hugo defends using argot, the lingo of thieves, he makes a good point that professions like stockbrokers have an argot of their own, but not satisfied with this example, he goes on and on for an entire page where a brief sentence would have sufficed. Were you one of those people who complained about Ayn Rand's long speechifying in her novels? Well, she was an admirer of Hugo, and I suspect this is where she got the habit from. I would have happily taken a hatchet to the chapters on the rules of the Bernardine-Benedictines and there's really no excuse for spending that much wordage on the sewers of Paris. But with many of the digressions, even when I was impatient to get back to the mainline of the story, I found many of them worth reading. Skip the chapter "The Tail" in Melville's Moby Dick, and I don't think you'd miss much unless you find the anatomy of whales fascinating. Skip the second epilogue of Tolstoy's War and Peace in my opinion you miss only crank theorizing. But within a lot of those digressions in Les Miserables are insights into the spirit of the 19th century.
Besides, I also rather prefer Hugo's characters to those of Tolstoy. Jean Valjean has the kind of largeness of character lacking in the cast of Tolstoy's historical novel to carry an epic. When Valjean first appears in the novel on page 66, he's been a galley slave for 19 years--initially sentenced because he stole a loaf of bread. Six years later he's a wealthy entrepreneur that lifted his town to prosperity and became its mayor, and likely would have continued to prosper were it not for Inspector Javert. And if Valjean is a hero worthy of an epic, than Javert makes a worthy villain, almost a force of nature, and interesting because he's above all motivated by devotion to the law. And for a full-on black villains, you can't do much better than Pere and Mere Thénardier. There are also vividly drawn secondary characters such as their children Gavroche and Eponine. (Even if I do agree with Jean Valjean that Marius, his adopted daughter's love interest, is a "booby." A good match for the ninny that is Cosette.)
Yes, there are coincidences that stretch credibility and larger-than-life characters and melodramatic rhetorical flourishes. And at times Hugo's chauvinism, his aggrandizement of his nation--much more evident than in Tolstoy or Dickens or Hawthorne--raised an eyebrow. And I certainly don't share Hugo's enthusiasm for revolution, riots ("emeutes") and mobs and I'm to put it mildly, dubious about Hugo's vision of "Progress." I wondered at times, just how much of the melody, the poetry of the writing I missed reading the Wilbour translation. Some claim that if you don't like Hugo, it might be Wilbour's fault. But I certainly found this mammoth epic more interesting than the equally lengthy War and Peace and clumsy translation or not, one with many beautiful and quotable passages.
I started Les Miserables with high expectations, and was not disappointed. Victor Hugo is champion of the touching moment. He will spend chapter after chapter setting up every tiny detail for the perfect moment. I found myself having to stop multiple times, I could read no more because I was crying too hard. Please do not be intimidated by this. The title is "The Miserable," and Hugo isn't afraid to bring you down to the level of the lowest to show you what must be the depths of despair. But woven into these troubles and woes are themes of hope and redemption. Thus, the tears and sorrow I felt were of the most satisfying variety.
It was those sweet little moments that make this novel so great. Victor Hugo is not afraid of spending adequate time to set things up for a devestating paragraph or shocking sentence. Victor Hugo is certainly not concerned about wasting your time. For example - he spends over four chapters describing the history of the sewer systems of Paris. Was it really necessary? Maybe some of us enjoy having this random bit of history to share with our naughty nerd friends. I wasn't quite so enthusiastic. I attempted to immerse myself in the quality of his writing, and forgive the putrid subject matter. We must allow these great novel writers some lee-way in this area. They spend so much time and thought masking their genius behind characters and intricate story plots. The greatest epic novels tend to have the longest diversions; if we take advantage of the treasure they have handed us, we must also submit ourselves to the occasional ramble. And when you realize exactly how smart this man is, you shan't mind submitting yourself to a (maybe) unnecessary diatribe.
So we plow through the history of Parisian sewers and find ourselves in a climax worthy of the highest accolades. For those of you worried about the time and stamina it takes to make it through a 1000+ page novel, have no fear. The book is constantly progressing, becoming more and more beautiful with each succuesive chapter.
Before I finish this perhaps conservative and certainly not over-exaggerated praise, I must mention the characters. To me, the characters are the most important element of any novel or work of prose. Hugo's characters were interesting. Although a few bordered cliche, they each had their fair share of peculiarities and were (to some extent) relatable. They certainly had not the four dimensional reality of Tolstoy, neither were they the caricatures of Dickens. Hugo found a lovely middle ground. Although his characters are life-like, they also seem to embody themes, ideas, and philosophies that play and interact within the story - creating a suprisingly interesting philosophical thought box.
Kudos to the man- for creating a novel that will outlive every rebellion and continue to reach the multitude with a message of the existence of undying love.
What you can you say about Hugo's epic that hasn't already been said? It's beautifully written with characters that leap off the page. The novel encompasses a huge amount of period French history, putting the characters in the thick of the action of some important (and unimportant events.) It is a story of redemption, of love, of suffering.
The only criticism I can lodge is that some of Hugo's tangents go on a bit long... (I now know more than I ever need to about Waterloo, for example) and pull away from the story. At times I wondered if we were ever going to get back to Jean Valjean's story. Still, I can't help giving this five stars because I just loved the book enough to overlook that minor quibble. This is truly just a great book.
For example, I loved the way Hugo compared a prison to a monastery and a convict to a nun, never would I have even thought to compare the two! I also loved the entire rant on slang; this topic is still being debated today. Also, the slang of long ago is proper speech today which strengthens his argument even more. He brings a refreshing look at what slang really is and how it should be treated.
One of my favorite characters in the book was actually a very minor character but one which brought about Hugo’s rant of slang. Gavroche, the street urchin who creates a nest in an elephant sculpture, has such cheer and resourcefulness for a child with nothing. This is admirable, yes… but Gavroche’s charm lies with his slangy speech. His speech is chock full of cute words for ordinary things and he tries to correct others when they use “proper” speech. His part is short but his character is so heartwarming and odd that it stuck with me.
Okay, so… this story is aptly named “The Miserable Wretches” because EVERYONE has horrible things happen to them BUT sometimes a happy ending is overrated. I’ll leave you with this quote straight out of the ending of the book:
“It is a terrible thing to be happy! How content one is! How all-sufficient one finds it! How, being in possession of the false object of life, happiness, one forgets the true object, duty!”
It was Hugo’s duty to deliver us a story with depth and feeling, not one of those dull (heard it all before) stories. With this, he has success… End of story.
Still, and extraordinary story written with passion by a GREAT writer. You just can't be in a hurry. Hugo isn't.
A hefty tome, Victor Hugo's novel is rightfully a classic. His exploration of the character of Jean Valjean and the individuals who surround him is a fascinating read. France in the early 19th century is brilliantly evoked and Hugo is highly capable of writing beautiful prose and a riveting narrative. And some of his asides on society and humanity are an intriguing reflection of the conflict between the ideals of Romanticism and the influx of realism and humanism that emerged during the Industrial Revolution. That being said, the novel does have a few weaknesses. First, is the female characters whose moments of superficiality and stupidity, with Hugo rhapsodizing on the innocence and childlike nature of women, is enough to make you long for a Dickensian heroine. The other major flaw for a modern reader are the regular tangents that break up the flow of the narrative. An in-depth description of the battle of Waterloo and a brief history of the Paris sewers are significant offenders I could have done without. But these two flaws aside, which are signs of the novel's age, Les Misérables is a classic that should be experienced at least once.
You might think the next part is really goofy. But when I was trying to teach my kids not to steal, I read to them the part about when Jean Valjean steals the candle sticks from the Monsigneur. Of course this is a part of the book that nobody can ever forget. Maybe some day my kids will read the book. They have seen one of the movie versions, I do not know which. Does not matter. I also read it later on in the original French. Want to go back and read it a third time some time in the future.
I have read several of the other reviews posted about this book, and I can see their point about the book going on and on for too many pages. But on the other hand, I remember reading what someone else said or wrote somewhere, that novels were the Television of the 19th Century. This makes sense to me. If it is true as it is sometimes said, that there is a large part of the population that watches tv for 15 or 20 or more hours a week, then it seems trivial in comparison to spend 20 or 30 hours reading a massive French novel. I know which I prefer.
When characters are called dolts or shallow, I can see on what basis this statement is made, but I do not adopt absolute standards on those questions, only relative observations. Victor Hugo could have selected other ways of writing that would have made the reviewers not say that the characters are dolts or shallow, but it does not matter. This is the choice he made. I will take the book for what it is and not ask it to be something else.
But the above argument is contradictory and meaningless. Because if I think that the reviewers are dissing the book, that just means that I am dissing them and want to pick a fight with them, and therefore I am just as bad as them. Nothing is a contentious statement unless the passers-by who encounter it want it to be a contentious statement, and then they can contend about it all they want. You can want Jean Valjean to be a dolt, and he can be a dolt, or I can want you to be a dolt for saying that Jean Valjean is a dolt, but I could just hold it back and not worry about anybody being a dolt. Everybody is a dolt. But nobody is a dolt but thinking makes it so.
I better go now, before I say anything else stupid. (I do not think that Jean Valjean is a dolt. He just wanted to eat some bread and get some bread for his family, and he was stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time.)
Showing the novel nature of good and evil and the law in the breathtaking story of the Paris landmarks show, ethics, philosophy, law, justice, religion and the nature of romantic and familial love.
Les Miserables great novel because Victor Hugo was a romantic at heart, and the book is filled with moments of great poetry and beauty. The depth of the internal vision and the fact that made him a classic for Aihddh time, one of the great works in Western literature even today after 150 years of writing, the book remains a powerful story of Les Miserables .